Using an Escape Room as Gameful Training With Students

February 1, 2019 | By Dillon R. Waggoner, Samantha J. Martin, Jeff L. Eads, and R. Dean Branson

three people using a board

TAGS: journal,

NACE Journal, February 2019

Student engagement continues to be a priority in higher education, so how can we reach multimodal innovative students in a personalized manner?

The Ball State University Career Center sought to enhance its on-campus workshops by applying game design principles and experiential learning to engage students in enhancing their professional development. The ability to solve problems has been identified through research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) as an important skill for job seekers and a key career readiness competency. This, coupled with the desire to provide interactive learning, led us to create an escape room experience to teach and allow students to experience workplace problem solving.

Literature Review: Using Games and Gamification

Our focus on interactivity and experiential learning stems from the research done in this area.

Experiential Learning Compared to Traditional Lectures

Lecture-based education has likely never been the most impactful way to reach students. According to results of the Learning in America survey conducted by Everest College, more than half of Americans believe they learn most effectively through hands-on training and participation. The experiential learning model established by David A. Kolb provides additional validity to this statistic, suggesting that, despite individuals’ preferred learning methods, experiential interaction with material produces positive learning outcomes. This may be especially true among Generation Z college students, who tend to prefer hands-on activities and innovative approaches and tend also to have active attention spans of eight seconds or less, according to Giselle Abramovich. Generation Z individuals are also considered multimodal learners, according to Feraaz Abrahams, meaning that they will benefit significantly from having several different mediums or channels of information.

The lecture format often fails not only at providing multimodal information delivery methods, but also at effectively engaging students’ attention spans. Sarah E. Peterson and Jeffrey A. Miller compared students in large group settings with others participating in small group cooperative learning exercises and found that experiential groups were both more engaged and more likely to retain information and that the group indicated the experience was of higher quality and greater benefit. Further data was collected by Joshua D. Miller and Robert P. Rebelein to demonstrate that the use of interactive pedagogies in classroom settings results in significantly improved student learning and engagement.

Games and Escape Rooms

Sebastian Deterding, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke defined the term “gamification” as “the use of game-design elements in non-game concepts.” Since an escape room is inherently a game concept, the term “gameful training” applies better than does “gamification.” Whether through gamification or through the use of full-fledged games, game-design elements have become an increasingly popular strategy for addressing many of the issues faced by lecture-based teaching methods. Karl M. Kapp has underscored the importance of games in learning and defines a well-designed game as “a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge, defined by rules, interactivity, and feedback that result in a quantifiable outcome often eliciting an emotional reaction.” While “gamification” often appears in the form of digital badges or rewards, Kapp emphasizes that the engagement with a full-fledged game’s rules and the ability to trigger a measurable, yet emotional, response uniquely positions games as a valuable tool for learning, given that few other devices can provide the same level of experience and engagement. Furthermore, Volkswagen’s “The Fun Theory” project demonstrated that making activities fun can lead to positive change and increased engagement and participation. At their core, games are intended to be fun; therefore, as Karen Schrier notes, they should be an effective way to drive positive change.

Schrier also indicated several benefits of games as they relate to participant behavior, including their unique ability to foster problem solving, motivation, and social interaction. Because games create a safe environment with their own set of rules in which participants are often rewarded for trying different approaches, they are perhaps the best medium for encouraging and increasing problem solving, motivation, and social interaction. According to Schrier, “Games at their core involve problems or goals, which players need to solve or complete. Moreover, games have been credited in honoring players’ problem-solving skills, such as through encouraging alternate paths, providing stories or analogies, or encouraging the sharing and deliberation of different perspectives among players.” Escape rooms, which use creative problem solving and teamwork, are a perfect example of this. Furthermore, Carlos Borrego, Cristina Fernandez, Ian Blanes, and Sergi Robles found that using escape room-style puzzles to teach course content greatly increased student motivation and willingness to learn new information. In practice, other career services offices, such as those at Michigan Technological University, have likewise recognized this educational benefit of escape rooms.

The Ball State Escape Room

Following a staff retreat in summer 2017 and inspired by a team-building event, a career center action team tasked with developing interactive workshops developed the escape room activity.

The purpose of the escape room game at Ball State was to address the student motivation and engagement that is often lacking in a lecture-based setting by gamifying a career development topic.

Initially using the escape room board game by Spin Master Games as an example, the team developed a gameful training activity in the form of a three-round escape room experience. The experience followed the story of an experiment gone awry in a science lab. Students are challenged to escape the locked laboratory in round one, find the location of an at-risk campus landmark in round two, and identify the correct student suspect out of several possibilities in round three.

The activity includes riddles, puzzles, decoys, maps, and locks that encourage students to work as a team to solve the problems at hand. After completing the activity, students are guided through a debriefing discussion that covers connections to real-world workplace problem solving, teamwork, and resource management in a professional setting.

The game served as an alternative to the career center’s “Workplace Problem Solving” workshop, which is primarily lecture-based and is part of Ball State’s required career preparedness course. The intended learning outcomes of the traditional workshop and escape room game were the same: for participants to become more competent at creative problem solving in the workplace; understand critical thinking strategies, such as divergent thinking; learn how individuals’ values and ethics impact decision making; and learn how to effectively guide a team through the decision-making process. Problem solving was chosen for its natural compatibility with an escape room game and because problem solving and decision making are consistently considered important skills for new graduates by employers responding to NACE’s annual Job Outlook survey and in NACE’s studies related to career readiness.

The career center implemented the escape room game in the spring semester of 2018. Students were given the option of taking part in the traditional workshop or the escape room. Through 12 sessions of the activity, 93 students participated, for an average of seven to eight students per session. For eight of the sessions, students signed up online for a spot in a scheduled escape room event. Other sessions were conducted as part of an academic course and, by request, through student organizations. The escape room game was designed with three to eight participants per session in mind, but the activity sign up allowed for up to 10 students at a time, and some class settings resulted in as many as 12 of participants in a single activity.

Following the conclusion of each escape room game, the participating students were given five open-answer reflection questions:

1. Did individuals take certain roles in the team? What was yours?

2. What was motivating you to finish the activity?

3. What skills were necessary to succeed in this activity?

4. What would you have done differently?

5. Was there anything else that stood out to you? (Optional)

After students completed these questions, the career coach facilitating the activity led a 15-to-30-minute discussion about what skills were used during the game and the real-world implications, based on the students’ interactions with each other and with the game content.

Student Response to the Escape Room

At the conclusion of the discussion, an open-answer survey containing five questions geared to evaluating the escape room activity and assessing its effectiveness in achieving learning outcomes was given to each participant.

1. What did you learn about problem solving through this activity and discussion?

2. Do you feel like this was good practice for real workplace problems? Why or why not?

3. Additionally, what did you learn about group/teamwork through this activity and discussion?

4. Did you enjoy this activity and discussion?

5. Would you recommend this activity over a “normal” workshop to a friend?

Of the 93 participants, 72 completed surveys were collected. (Note: The intention of these surveys was to collect feedback solely for the internal purpose of assessing and improving the escape room activity and not intended as an instrument of research. All surveys were anonymous.) As the survey questions were open-ended, results were primarily qualitative, but the responses were also quantified based on two categories: Questions 1 through 3 were scored to indicate the effective fulfillment of a learning objective, and questions 4 and 5 were scored to determine whether or not the student was engaged, motivated, and satisfied by the activity.

Of the 72 students who completed surveys, 68 indicated that they thought the activity and discussion were good practice for real workplace problem solving. All but two students indicated that they learned something or had a specific takeaway through participation in this activity. Though not all of these self-indicated learning outcomes were specific to the intended learning outcomes of the workshop, similar themes arose. Seventy of the students indicated that they enjoyed the activity, and all 72 indicated that they would recommend it to others over a traditional workshop.

Based on the information gathered through the survey, it is apparent that the student response to the escape room was overwhelmingly positive. The quantified information makes it clear that students 1) did learn about workplace problem solving from this activity, and 2) enjoyed the activity and would recommend it over a traditional lecture-based workshop. Given the positive response from students, we are interested in expanding the activity to offer it to more students in the future.

We also believe that our experience supports the literature that states that interactive, participant-led activities, especially when gamified, produce favorable results and are seen as highly valuable by the students. When students solve a complex problem, even one seemingly not related to their future career, they are able to learn about problem solving in the workplace, implement critical thinking strategies, gain insight into how individuals’ values and ethics impact decision making, and learn how to effectively guide a team through the decision-making process. While Borrego and his co-authors would likely accredit this to a highly increased motivation factor on the student end, our experience suggests that this is just one of the contributing factors. The natural push toward creative problem solving and teamwork, set up by the rules and context of the game, also facilitate effective learning consistent with Schrier’s conclusions about the effectiveness of games in establishing not just motivation but also problem solving and social collaboration.

Implications for Future Practice

With student feedback being positive and with increasing interest among members of the campus community, there is good reason to continue pursuing the idea of gamifying learning experiences for career development.

Specifically, the escape room concept seems a strong model and one that resonates generally with the traditional-age student population. However, more research would be useful in terms of the appeal of gamified workshops or escape rooms to specific student populations, including international students. It would also be helpful to obtain information on what drew students to the game option originally and why others chose to do the traditional workshop rather than the game option.

In addition, there is research and evaluation needed around accessibility issues presented by highly interactive and gamified workshops to make them inclusive of individuals with disabilities. In particular, we found the escape room as currently formulated presents accessibility challenges as it requires mobility, verbal group communication, physical manipulation of objects, the ability to see, and other abilities.


Abrahams, F. (2015). Understanding Generation Z learning styles in order to deliver quality learning experiences. Precision Industries. Retrieved from

Abramovich, G. (2015). 15 mind-blowing stats about Generation Z. Adobe CMO. Retrieved from

Borrego, C., Fernandez, C., Blanes, I., & Robles S. (2017). Room escape at class: Escape game activities to facilitate the motivation and learning in computer science. Journal of Technology and Science Education, 7(2), 162-171. Retrieved from

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining “Gamification.” Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference (pp. 9-15). doi: 10.1145/2181037.2181040

Everest College. (2014). Learning in America survey. Retrieved from

Kapp, K. & Coné, J. (2012). What every chief learning officer needs to know about games and gamification learning. Institute for Interactive Technologies.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall.

Miller, J. & Rebelein, R. (2011). Research on the effectiveness of non-traditional pedagogies. In G. Hoyt & K. McGoldrick (Eds.) The International Handbook on Teaching and Learning Economies (pp. 323-331). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. Career readiness competencies: Employer survey results. Retrieved from

National Association of Colleges and Employers. Annual Job Outlook survey.

Peterson, S. & Miller, J. (2004).“Comparing the quality of students’ experiences during cooperative learning and large-group instruction. The Journal of Education Research, 97(3), 123-133.

Schrier, K. (2016). Knowledge games: How playing games can solve problems, create insight, and make change. Baltimore, ML: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Volkswagen. (2009). The fun theory 1: An initiative of Volkswagen. Available from com/watch?v=SByymar3bds

Williams, Beth. Escaping the traditional workshop: Engaging students with interactive escape room programming. Presentation: 2018 Annual Conference Midwest Association of Colleges and Employers.

Dillon R. Waggoner is an assistant director at the Ball State Career Center, where he has served his alma mater for the last two years. He earned his master of arts in student affairs administration in higher education from the same university. As a career coach at Ball State, he works with science and health majors individually and provides numerous presentations each semester. Waggoner has presented on using games and escape rooms in career development at the 2018 Career Development Professional of Indiana annual conference. He can be reached at

Samantha J. Martin is an assistant director at the Ball State Career Center. She has her undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication studies and is pursuing her doctorate in adult, community, and higher education. Martin is the liaison to the communication, media, fine arts, and design students at Ball State and teaches a communication and popular culture course. She can be reached at

Jeff L. Eads is the senior assistant director for connecting activities at the Ball State Career Center, where he provides career coaching and professional development programming for students while looking for unique opportunities to connect them with alumni and employers. Eads has been developing college students for more than 20 years. Prior to working in career services, he worked in campus ministry. Eads earned his master’s degrees from Cairn University in the fields of counseling and biblical studies. He can be reached at

R. Dean Branson is an assistant director at the Ball State Career Center, with an emphasis on career exploration and special interest in working with international students and student athletes. In his 20-year student affairs career, he has always focused on helping students develop into the best version of themselves. Branson can be reached at

Please note: The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Scott Reinke, coordinator of the BSU Achievements Program.